Just Before the Battle, Mother: Or, to Hell With the Civil War

“They’ve dropped you,” my wife said, putting aside the annual edition of the membership directory of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia, which arrived, by mistake, in this morning’s mail.

So, deliberately, and by so simple an act as refusing to send in my check for this year’s dues, now I am a straggler— nay, put it accurately and bluntly, a deserter from that mighty army which up and down the land is refighting the late War of the Southern Rebellion (or for Southern Independence, if your sympathies lie in that direction) over creamed chicken and apple pie, wherever two or more are gathered together whose views on Marse Robert and Sam Grant either agree or disagree. I, who was among the first of the flower of a nation’s youth to enlist in this dedicated legion, have quit. I am going to stay home and make a crop, and no derisory hoots, no accusatory cries, no bounties in bargain reprints of partisan memoirs shall tempt me to reconsider my decision and return to the ranks. I have seen the elephant, boys. To hell with the Civil War.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the dry rot of disillusion set in. It was just after we stout fellows of the C.W.R.T. of D.C. had listened to a dissertation by Mr. William Schmidt and Mr. Lawrence Sagle, of the public relations department of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, on that common carrier’s role as “The Union’s Lifeline into the West.” Splendid stuff, full of choochoos and John Singleton Mosby’s men cutting the main line. Across the table from me sat one of those small, intense men, with eyes like a beetle’s. I thought he was listening. But no. No sooner had Schmidt and Sagle finished when he leaned across toward me.

“What’s your thinking on Thisby’s handling of the right flank at Nurdleigh’s Mills?” he asked.

“Interesting,” I replied, noncommittally.

“Ah,” replied my interrogator, and nodded happily.

Thus, with one question, my enjoyment of the lecture was shattered, for the lact is that I had never heard of Thisby, and Nurdleigh’s Mills meant nothing to me. The splendid accomplishments of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in the years 1860 to 1865 might never have happened; now my whole concentration was focused on an attempt at remembering Thisby. Cavalryman? Artilleryman? Valiant right arm of Nathan Bedford Forrest? If I could remember Thisby, I might then recall his association with Nurdleigh’s Mills.

To cut a long story short, the moment I got home that evening I went straight to Battles and Leaders. No Thisby. I turned next to Yoseloff’s magnificent Official Atlas of the Civil War. No Nurdleigh’s Mills. An investment of nearly seventy dollars in reference volumes, and not a thing to be found.

Sitting there, surrounded by my useless tomes, I was struck by a blasphemous thought: I didn’t really care one way or the other what Thisby had done with the left flank at Nurdleigh’s Mills. At this late date, what difference did it make what I cared? If Thisby had goofed, he had goofed, and nothing could ever be done about it now.

One blasphemous thought leads easily to another. If I didn’t care about Thisby, why should I care about Longstreet? Or Meade? Or who struck John Pope?

Thus it became increasingly obvious that, in the final analysis, my once-glowing interest in the Civil War had become but a dying ember of its former self; that my pretensions to be a student of that war were naught but a hollow mockery. How can a man who has never heard of the gallant Thisby’s action at Nurdleigh’s Mills dare to pass himself off as a true Civil War buff? My choice was clear. After nearly twenty years of loyal service to the cause, I had lost heart. I wanted out.

And now I am out, and it feels great. Mind you, the next few years aren’t going to be easy for us lilylivered cowards, as doubtless we shall be described. It will be wellnigh impossible to pick up a magazine or newspaper of any pretensions or to glance at the television screen without encountering some aspect of the late war. For the centenary of the rebellion is upon us, and from now until 1965 the drums will rattle and the trumpets will blare, and God help us all. Even now the pattern is clear and ominous: the magazines will concentrate on the obscure; television will handle the big set pieces requiring him clips from The Birth of a Nation.

The bookmen have been onto this thing for at least twenty years, and the trickle that began when that avalanche of prose, Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee, thundered down from the heights to crack the dam has swollen to a torrent of Johnstownian proportions. The diary of a quartermaster’s clerk who spent the war years counting boots in Buffalo, New York, can today as readily find a publisher as the memoirs of a controversial corps commander. Perhaps even more readily, such is the passion for detail, however picayune, which obsesses the Civil War buff.

I look with dismay to a prospect of bookstores filled with scholarly examinations of Confederate horseprocurement policy and Union experiments with the breech-loading light field piece. Not to mention many more of the second-by-second books: The Day Spruggins Failed at Peasmirch Ridge, say, or The First Four Hours at Nurneysville: Gormley Turns the Tide at the Flood.

If we do not, within the next several years, see Elvis Presley smart in Charlottesville gray and hear him belt out The Fellow Rose of Texas as he rides careless at the head of his troop of Central Casting Horse,

I shall be very much surprised at Hollywood. Van Heflin, to name only one star of the first magnitude, may make an eminently satisfactory General Grant, but since the passing of Lewis Stone, the selection of a player to enact Robert E. Lee may present difficulties. Rest assured, however, that the cinema industry is not going to overlook this bonanza.

For some time past, the jukeboxes have been resounding to various modern versions of songs popular during the Late Unpleasantness, including the aforementioned Yellow Rose and The Bonny Bine Flag. I doubt that the astute men who manage the affairs of the recording companies will be content to rest upon these relatively few resurrections, so far as popular music is concerned. We shall see, I suspect, more and bolder raids upon the contents of the more solemn albums, such as The Union and The Confederacy of Richard Bales, and we may hear the results in the dulcet tones of Sinatra and Como, possibly in a joint effort to be entitled “Music for Reading Bruce Catton By.”

Travel, too, will be hazardous throughout the various theaters of war, for if the Civil War Centennial Commission has its way, no city, town, or hamlet which heard so much as a single shot fired in anger between the contending forces of the Union and the late Confederacy will fail to restage its moment, however brief and lacking in tactical or strategic significance, in the “soaring drama of this mighty conflict.”

But me, I’ve seen the elephant. I’ve spent my last three bucks for a platter of cold roast beef and an hour’s talk on Johnston’s retrograde movement before Atlanta, and from here on in I shall destroy without opening the envelopes the circulars from the man in Fairfax, Virginia, who makes miniature field artillery and the publishers from Memphis to Mobile who offer me new editions of Hardee’s Infantry Manual (exact facsimiles, less bloodstains).

So, farewell, old comrades; farewell all you brave lads of the District of Columbia Civil War Round Table and all the other round tables from La Jolla, California, to Moundsville, West Virginia. I have joined the Invalid Corps.1

  1. If you don’t understand the significance of the Invalid Corps, or if “seeing the elephant” means nothing to you, ask any Civil War buff. He will tell you and tell you and tell you and tell you.